Writing skills: Punctuation

So if you’ve read many of our other blog posts, you’ve probably come across one or the other of us banging on about how writing skills don’t necessarily translate from a student’s L1. In my experience this is never more true than with punctuation, which strangely enough is something that we tend to ignore for the most part in the classroom. It’s something small and easily teachable that can have a huge effect on the target reader. Incorrect punctuation is immediately noticeable for a reader and can be quite off-putting (hahahaha, I hope I remember to read over this post very carefully before I put it up, it’s probably riddled with bad punctuation).

Just the other day I taught a lesson containing some phrasal verbs. As an optional revision exercise, I asked the students to write a short story containing 5 of the phrasal verbs. I did say it was optional but being the motivated little wonders they are, they all did it and had emailed me by the end of the day. Thankfully, they’d done really well and they’d nailed the usage of the phrasal verbs (more or less) but what stuck out in every story was the punctuation. It wasn’t that there was a lack of it, it was everywhere, as if they’d arbitrarily just flung commas and fullstops at their page after they’d written it.

It was my fault really as I’d never taught them anything about punctuation. So for the next class I went in with the following  lesson and their next piece of writing was much better.

Level: Elementary and up

Time: 1 hour

MaterialsPunctuation (City or Country)

Procedure:

(1)

Get their juices flowing:

Just to get them thinking about it, give them a minute to discuss the city versus the countryside. Then hand out the sheet (you might want to fold it so that they can only see the text at the top) and ask them if they agree with the opinion in the box. This should lull them into a false sense of security before you spring the writing skills part on them.

(2) 

The Text:

Now that they’ve read and discussed the little text, get them to take a slightly closer look at it. Have them discuss the questions underneath. What you’re going for here is that it’s just one long sentence with no clear point and too many commas. This can be quite common in student writing.

I’d discuss this a little as a class then at this point I think it’s important to clear up the name and use of common features of punctuation. Direct the students to the box at the bottom of the page and have them match up the names. They can often have trouble with this. I’d then take a few minutes to discuss their uses and allow students to take notes. Some interesting things that may come up are:

  • In a lot of languages ellipsis (…) can be used to mean etc. However, in English it’s used to signal a long pause or interruption.
  • Colons are often used in stories to signal direct speech. This is less common in English.
  • Semi-colons are sadly dying out in English, especially everyday writing but they can be a lot more common in language like Spanish or Italian. This can lead to overly lengthy sentences, which doesn’t come across well in English writing.
  • Students will often want to put full stops before “and”, “but” and “because”. While this is obviously not impossible in English, it can lead to short and unnatural sentences in student writing.

(3) 

Rewriting:

In pairs get your students to decide how they could improve the short text b punctuating it. Tell them that if they like they can remove or alter contractions to make it read better but that they shouldn’t change any other language. When they’re finished, discuss as a class.

I’d imagine you’re hoping for something like this:

The best thing about cities is the night life because you can go out and you can go to the pubs any time you like. Also, if you want to, you can get a night bus home at 4:00 in the morning if you have stayed out late. However, sometimes the night buses are very slow so you don’t get home until about 5:00 in the morning and that’s almost the next day.

But you may decide that another variation works better.

(4)

Practice:

Get the students to write their own opinion in the space at the bottom focusing carefully on punctuation. when they’re finished, let them compare with a partner and encourage peer correction. You could even put them up around the room and allow students to move around in pairs commenting on the punctuation and then feedback as a class.

The idea is to really get them thinking about how it can have a negative affect on the reader or make a text flow more easily.

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